There are many ways to enjoy the splendor of Northeastern fall foliage, including by boat, train, plane, balloon and that old reliable, the family car. For many purists, however, nothing beats the full-sensory experience of hiking through a hardwood forest — especially one that leads to the top of some natural promontory affording a 360-degree view over the tapestry of reds, oranges and yellows.
Profiled below are some regional hiking destinations. While the length of the hikes and the degree of difficulty vary, all are suitable for families (depending on ages and fitness levels) and doable as a day trip from Long Island, which means no advance planning is required. So wait for clear skies on a day when colors are at or near peak (visit foliagenetwork.com for twice-weekly updates), lace up those hiking boots and hit the ground . . . walking.
Note: “Difficulty” categories are easy, moderate, more difficult and strenuous, and are based on the overall hike, including distance, elevation gain and trail conditions.
BEAR MOUNTAIN STATE PARK A remarkably scenic, 5,000-acre forested expanse nestled in the rugged Hudson Highlands, Bear Mountain bursts into color as early as September. Nowhere are the prospects more dazzling than from Perkins Point, the 1,301-foot summit, whose memorial tower only enhances the view. To get there from the main parking lot, take the Bear Mountain Loop (4.2 miles round-trip), a portion of which overlaps the very first (1923) section of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail. Alas, Bear Mountain is no state secret and the summit also can be accessed by car. So expect plenty of company, especially on a picture-perfect day. You’ll just have to grin and Bear it — or cross the Bear Mountain Bridge (free for hikers) and climb Anthony’s Nose instead.
Distance 45 miles north of Manhattan. Difficulty Moderate to more difficult. Access fees $10 per vehicle (weekends only). Info parks.ny.gov/parks/13/details.aspx
THE CATSKILLS With 98 peaks over 3,000 feet, the Catskills are legitimate mountains. Combine that with the Catskill Forest Preserve’s 300,000 acres, and you have a true abundance of hiking opportunities. Located along the preserve’s eastern edge, Overlook Mountain (3,140 feet plus fire tower) provides dramatic views out over the Hudson River Valley. The trail (5 miles round-trip) begins across from the Tibetan Monastery (well worth a look) on Meads Mountain Road in Woodstock. Visitors are warned to look out for rattlesnakes near the ruins of the Overlook Mountain House. For a more deep-in-the-woods experience, head for Giant Ledge (actually a series of five ledges, each offering expansive views) on the trail up 3,725-foot Panther Mountain in the central Catskills near Big Indian (3.4 miles round-trip). Distance 100 miles north of Manhattan. Difficulty More difficult to strenuous. Access fees None
LITCHFIELD HILLS What distinguishes the Litchfield Hills is their location in British-colonized New England, the legacy of which is town greens surrounded by Congregational churches and white clapboard houses. A full range of shorter hikes can be taken at Mohawk Mountain State Forest near Cornwall, with the best views coming from atop 1,683-feet Mohawk Mountain. Fifteen miles away, Bear Mountain, Connecticut’s highest peak (2,443 feet), rewards more adventurous hikers with even greater views of the sylvan Massachusetts Berkshires and the bucolic Housatonic River Valley. The primary route up, Under Mountain Trail (6.5 miles round-trip), begins along CT Route 41, three miles north of the charming town of Salisbury. Distance 80 miles northeast of Manhattan. Difficulty Moderate to more difficult. Access fees None. Info nwsdy.li/cthikes
GREAT SWAMP NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE Conveniently located in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, and with virtually no climbing involved, Great Swamp is ideal for families with younger children, who will be kept engaged by the abundance of wildlife, especially amphibians and migrating waterfowl along the two-mile boardwalk trail. But rest assured, there also will be plenty of color emanating from a wide variety of water-loving trees, aquatic plants and late-blooming flowers. For a more intimate (and longer) interaction, there’s the 4.5-mile Orange Trail in the Refuge’s wilderness section (separate trailhead). Distance 26 miles west of Manhattan. Difficulty Easy. Access fees None. Info fws.gov/refuge/great_swamp
DELAWARE RIVER GAP It took the Delaware River 400 million years to cut through Kittatinny Ridge and form what is now the mile-wide and 1,000-foot-deep Delaware Water Gap. These days the Gap is home to a 70,000-acre, bi-state national recreation area and some of the most exhilarating fall foliage panoramas in the Northeast. Experienced hikers have their choice of two relatively short, but demanding routes up: Mount Tammany on the New Jersey side (trailhead at the Dunnfield Creek parking lot off I-80) and Mount Minsi on the Pennsylvania side (trailhead on Mountain Road off State Route 611). Distance 70 miles northwest of Manhattan. Difficulty Strenuous. Access fees None. Info nps.gov/dewaHIGH POINT STATE PARK New Jersey’s highest point isn’t even a mountain, just the highest elevation (1,803 feet) on the state’s portion of Kittatinny Ridge. As a result, there isn’t much uphill climbing involved, which means great views with little effort. Of the 13 maintained trails, the most rewarding is the Monument Trail, a 3.5-mile loop built by the Civilian Conservation Corps that includes forests, meadows, a cedar swamp and a lake en route to the summit, atop of which stands a 220-foot memorial obelisk. Distance 75 miles northwest of Manhattan. Difficulty Easy to moderate.
Access fees No charge after Labor Day. Info nwsdy.li/njhikes
THE POCONOS Because they’re more upland plateau than geologic mountains, the Poconos of northeastern Pennsylvania offer surprisingly expansive fall vistas. Arguably the best of the lot comes from the top of 2,133-foot Big Pocono Mountain, better known as Camelback, near Tannersville in Big Pocono State Park. And since the park is at the top, there’s no need to break a sweat, with the 1.3-mile Indian Trail leading out to the edge of the steep, 850-foot eastern escarpment. Alternatively, you can access the park via the TreeTops Flyer chair lift at Camelback ski resort ($8 a person) or just hike up a ski trail. Distance 80 miles west of Manhattan. Difficulty Easy to moderate. Access fees None. Info nwsdy.li/poconoshike